Summer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois: The 1,700-acre property is 23 miles west of Chicago as the crow flies, and its grounds are verdant and boastful. The rolling hills, ponds and manicured, walled gardens flaunt new spring coats of flowers and leaves. Lily pads yawn toward the sun, rhododendron sway lazy and heavy with perfumed petals. Months ago, this bounty was nearly unimaginable. Battling the cold of a Midwest winter, a trio of men crunched across the dormant ground, hands wrapped around mugs of hot water. One is a scientist; one is the arboretum restaurants’ beverage director; and one is Clint Bautz, founder of Lake Effect Brewing Co. in Chicago. They were on a hunt.
Lake Effect brews a year-round beer for the arboretum called Arbor Oak, an amber ale brewed with oak chips from Morton’s fallen trees. These winter searchers, though, hoped to find the ingredients to brew a summer beer for the arboretum—something expressive, refreshing and light. The three men passed immovable cedar trees, picked blades of shivering wild grasses and snatched a few chilly chokeberries, adding each of them to the hot water mugs to make a rough tea that gave an idea of the plants’ aromas and flavors. Each berry, bark or leaf was auditioning. They found a winner in juniper berries. Back at the brewery, Bautz fiddled with a few test batches, finally arriving at a juniper berry and lime saison, a few cases of which will make it to the arboretum this summer. Brewers sauteed the berries, reducing them with a touch of sugar into a syrup that, when added to the brew, lent the saison a botanical and woodsy twang reminiscent of a gin and tonic.
Wood is not uncommon in a brewhouse; beers aged on fresh oak or made with spruce tips are familiar. But brewers, especially those in arborous domains, have recently begun to eye entire trees—bark, leaves, sap, needles and all—as ingredients. Juniper, cedar, birch, Ponderosa pine, white fir and other timbers all confer their own distinct flavors, from vanilla to citrus to herbs. More than that, brewers say the final beers express the rusticity of their surroundings, that desirable sense of place that has led to a revival in foraging and local sourcing. Some brewers have the lumberjack look down pat; others take it a step further.
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Last September, 844 miles from their Ava, Illinois brewery, the team from Scratch Brewing Co. poured its series of tree beers at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. Surrounded by fluorescent lights and 500,000 square feet of traffic-resistant carpet, they couldn’t have felt farther from the soft woods and quiet, filtered sunshine of their 80-acre property. It sits on co-founder Aaron Kleidon’s family’s land, five miles from the Shawnee National Forest. Kleidon grew up running through those woods, and he knows their trees and plants as well as anyone. They inspired the five Single Tree beers Scratch poured at the festival, including maple, birch and hickory, brewed with sap, leaves, nuts or buds from each type of tree. Buzz about these one-of-a-kind beers crackled across the convention center.
“We got a lot of ‘This beer is weird,’” Kleidon says. “But that’s people who are drinking beers with their eyes and not their mouths. Once people tried the beer, the response was generally good.”
Scratch constantly brews with foraged ingredients; it’s pretty much the brewery’s calling card. Herbs, pawpaw fruit, ginger and chanterelle mushrooms have all been a part of past creations. The Single Tree series had a purpose beyond just tasting good and using nearby ingredients, though.
“When people came up to our booth to try the beers, they thought our beer had been made with barrels made of these trees. We talked to them a bit more to explain that it was not barrel-aged, but actually used different parts of the tree,” says Scratch co-founder Marika Josephson. “That opened people’s minds to thinking about trees in a different way.”
“When you’re drinking at a bar or liquor store, you see all kinds of barrel-aged beers. I think it’s been ingrained that oak is one of the few trees that you can use to brew with,” Kleidon adds. “Oak trees are a big part of our forest here, but we wanted to show that there are so many other trees that have different characteristics that we like better than oak.”
Take the maple trees surrounding Scratch, for example. Their leaves are shady green in spring, blazing red and orange like a flame in the fall. In the spring, their sap begins to flow. That’s when Kleidon, Josephson and company troop out to the forest, buckets in hand, and tap the trees. If it’s a good year, one tree will yield five to 10 gallons of sap. The sap entirely replaced water in the recipe for the Single Tree Maple beer; sap isn’t viscous, like maple syrup is, but is actually quite thin, with a slightly sugary flavor. It’s also highly perishable, so after the buckets were filled, Scratch’s crew needed to lug them quickly back to the brewery and begin making the beer within two days. It wasn’t easy work, but that’s never much mattered to Scratch’s process.
“We wanted to put together a beer that tastes like all that maple can give you: a wonderful maple syrup quality, dark sugars and cherry esters and minerals,” Kleidon says.
That maple beer was a success, but Kleidon and Josephson talk about even not-so-great experiments (like an unexpectedly bitter maple bud tea they concocted) with calm, scientific curiosity.
“The way we brew has definitely changed since we’ve opened just by learning about these trees,” says Kleidon. “Just knowing when to add different components to the beer has made our beer much more complex: Bark goes into the barrel, or leaves go into the fermenter, or sap in the hot liquor tank.”
Their learning comes from observing the forest, letting its rhythms and seasons dictate what’s to be brewed. They take walks. They watch and listen. They notice where plants grow, how they grow and what they grow alongside. And they don’t discard an herb or tree because it presents a question or a challenge.
“If we happen to be walking in the woods and see a tree at a certain time of year, maybe we hadn’t noticed it was giving off a smell or the leaves were a certain way during that season,” Kleidon says. “A lot of it is, I don’t want to say it’s random, but it’s a sense of discovery.”
They discovered that aged tree leaves are not unlike aged hops; leaves lose their aromatics and the bitterness begins to dissipate, but tannins emerge over time. They’ve also stumbled upon a tree called autumn olive, which grows dark berries and is cloaked in a bark that tastes fruity (it may be destined for a beer soon). And they noticed that birch trees support chaga mushrooms, a clingy fungus that attaches to the trees’ bark; that revelation led to a beer brewed with both birch bark and chaga mushrooms.
“We’re just working toward creating a beer that’s completely unique to our area and tastes like here,” Kleidon says. Now that Scratch has begun bottling its beers, that sense of “here” can travel.
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Two time zones west, in Bend, Oregon, sits The Ale Apothecary. Paul Arney began building the brewery in 2011 on three scenic acres that abut placid Tumalo Creek. He makes wild and rustic beers with water from his property’s own aquifer, with ingredients like wild harvested black currants and curious wild yeast and bacteria unique to his brewery. At first, he had to constantly correct people on one certain point.
“Everybody at the time was like, ‘You’re a farmhouse brewery, a farm brewer,’” he says. “I’m up at 4,700 feet in a spruce forest nowhere near a farm. I said, ‘No, we’re not a farm brewery because, well, we don’t have a farm.’”
Maybe he could get this message across in liquid form. An Internet rabbit hole led him to photos of Finnish kuurnas, hollowed-out logs cradling juniper branches that long-ago Scandinavian brewers used as lauter tuns to separate unfermented beer from grain. Arne was intrigued.
“One set of photos was black-and-white images of an old guy using a kuurna, so it gave me the idea of what it would look like,” he says. “The guy had a pail and a long log, and he was standing in a barn. It was very rustic and very dreamy, too. The photos referred to the sati style of beer, which I was able to research a bit. Bigger picture: Seeing these people who made beer in a similar ecological zone to us, and aligning myself with that, helped define who we are as a brewery. Our brewery is focused on the concept that the process is as important to the beer as raw materials.”
The result of his kuurna research is Ale Apothecary’s Sahati beer, a resinous, peppery and citrus-tart creation that evokes the Finnish style, but with Oregon ingredients. Finns likely used alder trees to create kuurnas and chose juniper to flavor their sahtis; for his first batches, Arney hollowed out a 14-foot, 200-year-old spruce that had fallen on his property and used its branches and needles as filters.
After a few years, when Arney upgraded the size of his brewing kettle to a modest three barrels, “we outgrew the log.” He’s since spotted a 14-foot, 32-inch diameter fallen tree trunk in his woods that he thinks could do the job, but, “we haven’t figured out how to move it yet.”
Other tree beer forays include a wheat wine brewed with Ponderosa pine needles, which Arney realized solve a procedural brewing problem: Wheat can make a beer’s mash (the grains steeped in hot water) gluey and gummy. Pine needles help to de-gunk and fluff up the mash. As a pleasant benefit, he found the needles also have a citrusy flavor that melds well with his house yeast’s fruity, tart character. The ultimate tree beer, though, still eludes Arney.
“This is a dream that may never be reached, but years ago, I got to talking with my first employee, who was a pretty big dreamer. We’d talk big ideas. He had a friend going to grad school and her focus was on the architecture of tree houses, so we came up with this idea to work with her, find a tree and make a whole brewery in it,” he says. “Now that would be the ultimate tree brewery: lots of pulleys and pedals up in the tree and a tap at the bottom of the trunk.”
SEEK THESE TREE BEERS
Propolis Brewing Cedar
Cedar tips contribute citrus flavors to an imperial golden saison brewed with wildflower honey harvested near the Port Townsend, Washington brewery. Look for the recently released 2016 vintage.
Big Axe Brewing
White Birch Porter
Naturally bitter white birch sap replaces water in this porter’s recipe, adding a second layer of earthy bitterness that complements English hops. It returns on draft each spring at the brewery’s taproom in Nackawic, New Brunswick, Canada.
Spruce Tip Blonde Ale
This Skagway, Alaska brewery subs spruce tips for one of the hop additions in this year-round blonde ale, lending a crisp, floral intrigue to the fruity base.